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ELYSIUM has epic sci-fi politics…

Posted on August 16th, 2013
Posted on August 16th, 2013

by Coop Cooper

Hollywood often plays politics but in the past decade or so it has had a tough time profiting from films that take a hardline partisan stance on a hot-button issue. In the case of “Elysium,” there is more than one political issue at play. In fact, one could argue it’s a fiercely unapologetic socialist propaganda film. One could also argue that it’s a visually masterful and exciting sci-fi film that upstages every single summer blockbuster of 2013.

150 years in the future where overpopulation, disease and poverty has turned Earth into one giant third-world slum. The wealthy live on the luxurious space station Elysium where all is provided for, including cures for all diseases and even death. Max (Matt Damon) is a blue collar ex-thief turned straight who catches a fatal dose of radiation while on the job at a factory that builds Earth’s brutal robotic police force. With only days to live, Max makes a deal with a crime boss hacker to spearhead a dangerous data hijacking operation in exchange for a ticket to Elysium. In order to complete the mission, Max must undergo painful surgery to attach a robotic exoskeleton and computer to his nervous system. The data Max hijacks turns out to be codes that could help turn over Elysium’s control to the Earth dwellers. Delacourt (Jodie Foster) the dictator of Elysium will stop at nothing to recapture the data and sends the vile, robotics-enhanced mercenary Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to hunt Max down.

Matt Damon and writer/director Neill Blomkamp have both publicly claimed that “Elysium” wasn’t intentionally made as socialist propaganda; that it is simply an escapist fantasy inspired by Blomkamp’s life in South Africa. I could buy that if it weren’t for all of the current political buzzwords used very deliberately such as calling the shuttles filled with refugees as ‘undocumented’ and naming the security branch of Elysium the ‘Department of Homeland Security’. There’s also the matter that in “Elysium” Blomkamp covers more sociopolitical issues than any movie in recent memory.

Here is a list of ideals the film takes a clear stance on: Amnesty for undocumented immigrants (most in the film were hispanic), free health care, the poor are oppressed by the wealthy, corporations rig elections, workers are unsafe without unions, illegal surveillance runs amok, armed robots/drones are unethical, illiteracy is a tool of oppression, pro-leniency in the justice system, zero tolerance policies are unfair, international law is a farce, governments outsourcing mercenaries is unethical, etc… There is also an obviously Obama-inspired ‘president’ character played by Faran Tahir who at first condemns Delacourt’s genocide of Earth dwellers and gives speeches about doing the right thing, but then is later revealed to be powerless and ultimately complicit with the villains by the film’s end. Despite what Blomkamp and Damon are (currently) telling the media, I think Blomkamp has quite a lot to get off his chest.

Interestingly enough, as a fantasy it absolutely works. The script is solid, the plot progresses smoothly and the pacing is calculated. Blomkamp’s team are masters at making computer generated effects more realistic than any filmmaking team in existence… James Cameron, eat your heart out. Blomkamp is also a wiz at speculating on future technology and bringing it to life in living color. The weapons, the robots, exo-skeleton suits, the battles, the spaceships and the action are all jaw-dropping. The production design overall is more Oscar-worthy than any sci-fi film in the past five years. To be blunt, “Elysium’s” design makes “Avatar” look absolutely ridiculous by comparison.

The acting is all over the place but perfectly passable for this type of sci-fi action epic. Damon plays himself and is likeable enough as an action hero but there is nothing new in his performance. Jodie Foster is fascinating to watch as a one-dimensional cartoon villain and her weird, stilted accent gave her a touch of menace that produces chills as she chews up the scenery. Sharlto Copley is frightening and completely disappears into his role as the disgusting Kruger, but as he gets more and more manic towards the conclusion, his antics take a turn towards laughable. Some of the supporting cast have peculiarly interesting roles (such as the gangsters played by Diego Luna and Wagner Moura). Alice Braga, who plays Max’s childhood crush and physician in the slums of Los Angeles, isn’t a dynamic actress and can’t seem to hold my interest no matter what I see her in. Also the ending lacked a bit of the ‘wow’ factor present in the rest of the film.

Elysium” is exciting, it looks great and it’s heavy-handed politics couldn’t distract me from the fact that this is a superior sci-fi film. Taken out of that context, it feels very close to a masterpiece. I suppose it’s up to the viewer whether they want to separate the fiction from the politics.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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